The house was packed a week ago today, when physicist Michio Kaku visited LaGuardia. He came at the invitation of the NEH-funded faculty seminar at LaGuardia – Technology, Self, and Society. 1 Students were engaged by his presentation, and there were long lines up the aisles of the auditorium to ask him questions (equally long were the lines for selfies and book-signings afterwards). This event was clearly a conversation starter, and Dr. Kaku gave our school community a lot to think (and talk) about. It was an important visit.
However. At one point during his talk, Dr. Kaku referred to a future where “perfect capitalism” exists – where consumers can custom order any item (his example was clothing) to be tailor-fit to their digitally stored body measurements.
As I mentioned to Kaku during his meeting with the seminar members afterwards, the Marxist scholar in me withered and died when he said this. Marx discusses the fetishizing of commodities (like the clothes that Kaku used in his examples, or the many other gadgets that were mentioned in his talk), and the value ascribed to them “transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic,” which hides the social relations of production and labor. 2 David Harvey describes this phenomenon, using the example of shopping for lettuce, where the price is “socially determined, and the price is a monetary representation of value.” 3 More Harvey, for elaboration:
hidden within this market exchange of things is a relation between you, the consumer, and the direct producers – those who labored to produce the lettuce. Not only do you not have to know anything about that labor or the laborers who congealed value in the lettuce in order to buy it; in the highly complicated systems of exchange it is impossible to know anything about the labor or the laborers, which is why fetishism is inevitable in the world market. The end result is that our social relation to the laboring activities of others is disguised in the relationships between things. You cannot, for example, figure out in the supermarket whether the lettuce has been produced by happy laborers, miserable laborers, slave laborers, wage laborers or some self-employed peasant. The lettuces are mute, as it were, as to how they were produced and who produced them. 4
I include this lengthy excerpt from Harvey to demonstrate how perfect capitalism would, according to Marx (and Harvey’s interpretation of Marx), perhaps even further disguise these social relations. Maybe we won’t care – or pretend to care – if our commodities are produced in sweatshops, or equally exploitative work conditions (if we care at all now, really).
“Capital has,” according to Marx,
one sole driving force, the drive to valorize itself, to create surplus-value, to make its constant part, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus labour. Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. 5
So in a future with “perfect capitalism,” the “social relation to the laboring activities of others” would (presumably) be even more perfectly hidden, meaning that the exploitation of workers would also be more perfectly disguised from consumers. In addition, “perfect capitalism” would be an apex blood-sucking predator, guzzling down labour power and producing surplus labor, draining the worker of every spare moment and maximizing the profit of the capitalist. 6
And – of course – capitalism in this model also reproduces social relations and hierarchies, ensuring that structural inequalities are likewise largely preserved.
When I presented my qualms about this “perfect capitalism” to Kaku, he pointed out that Marx claims capitalism “will carry within it the seeds of its own destruction.” 7 He further clarified that he was specifically referencing supply and demand – in terms of the consumer – when he was discussing “perfect capitalism.” Because our needs and wants (and measurements) would be digitally stored, there would be no mass production of commodities (in this case, clothes); things would be created as needed, catering to each individual, and surplus supply via mass production would no longer be an issue.
This did little to assuage the anxiety of the Marxist-scholar-in-me. Where is the promised destruction of capitalism in this bright and shiny future? Kaku also mentioned in his talk that the top third of the population had continued to do quite well in the past couple of decades, while the bottom two-thirds have gotten increasingly poorer. One student asked how to address this situation: Kaku encouraged students to get an education, particularly focused on the sciences and technology. When another student followed up, questioning how someone could get an education if they didn’t have access, there was no real discussion of how inequalities – and the inequalities reproduced by capitalism – would fit into this future.
This is why the future is fucked – or at the least it is in this brand of futurism. This future is all shiny surface, brimming with new and exciting technological tools, promising life extension and enhancement, paving the way for “perfect capitalism,” draining and hiding human labor power, reproducing structural inequalities ad nauseam. And I haven’t even gotten to how technology fits into the coevolutionary process Marx presents, or the question of resources and raw materials to make all these pretty new things (a post for another day, perhaps).
I’m going to go re-watch some Black Mirror tonight (maybe”Fifteen Million Merits”?). Because I need a little more speculation when we’re talking about the future of our technologies and minds.
- Friend and colleague Dr. Naomi Stubbs brought this grant to our campus. This is my second year as part of the seminar, and it has been a wonderful venue for exchanging ideas – both in terms of my own scholarship and my teaching. ↩
- Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1, Trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 167. ↩
- David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital (Brooklyn: Verso, 2010), 39. ↩
- Ibid., 39-40. Emphasis in original. ↩
- Marx, Capital, 342. ↩
- I’m trying to think of the most powerful vampire I’ve encountered in lit/comics/Buffy/TV/movies, and drawing a blank – but that’s the one I mean. And sparkly vampires don’t count. Ever. ↩
- Karl Marx, “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League.” ↩